This Farmer Is Using a Drone to Spy on His Cows

Equipped with a 14 million megapixel camera and propellers that reach heights of 300 feet, farmer Gareth Powell's drone remotely monitors his dairy herd. It’s a technology that some see as a way forward for the struggling UK dairy industry.

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Jul 21 2015, 10:00am

Whether military aircraft, instrument of surveillance, or "parcelcopter," few recent technological advancements evoke as much emotion as drones. They represent a world we haven't yet grown comfortable with, humming—quite literally—with the future.

When I pull into the yard of Smith's Farm, home to Powell Agricultural Contractors in the Wiltshire countryside, wariness is the last thing on my mind, despite the fact that owner Gareth Powell greets me with an ominous-looking silver box.

"The drone's in here," he says.

Powell's day job is being behind the wheels of a large tractor, which he uses to spread slurry across the county's farms. To ensure the slurry he has spread is evenly distributed and the pipes that run underneath aren't damaged, he uses a drone.

READ MORE: No One Wants You to Fish with Drones

No more than 50 x 40 centimetres, the machine is mid-shin height, made of flimsy-looking white plastic and with toy box propellers on each corner. It looks like a pretty ordinary remote control plane, except this remote control plane can reach the same heights as small aircraft.

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Farmer Gareth Powell (right) demonstrates his drone to the author. All photos by Michael Griffiths.

"It's currently in the air for 20 to 25 hours a week and can do about 25 minutes at a time," explains Powell. "It's legally not meant to go more than 300 feet—though it can go much more—because it interrupts with planes and helicopters."

The drone also features a 14 million megapixel camera, which Powell syncs to his smartphone in order to monitor his 150-strong dairy herd between milkings. If an animal has been unwell, he can keep an eye on it from a central location, without the hassle of going into the field and disrupting the rest of the herd. Images from the drone's camera can also be used to spot patterns in the field itself, indicating soil compaction or differences in fertility.

"When we're taking pictures, we have to get permission from everyone who comes into shot, for security reasons," adds Powell.

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Powell's farm may be one of the few in the country to use this ultra-modern technology but as UK milk prices continue to drop, anything with the potential to improve dairy farmers' lot and by extension, their product, has to be a good thing.

"If it saves time, so you have more time to spend on the welfare aspects of farming," says Amanda Ball, Head of Marketing And Communications at AHDB Dairy, a not-for-profit organisation that works for Britain's dairy farmers. "Like any business, dairy farmers will have business objectives, KPIs. It's all about being able to measure their production efficiency."

Bell stresses, however that the technology is new and "drones aren't going to solve the current financial challenges" facing dairy farmers.

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dairy-farmer-smiths-farm Hannah Chard, farm manager at Smith's Farm in Wiltshire.

But drone usage is symptomatic of the dairy industry's desire for innovation. As the technology becomes more widespread and farmers more comfortable, it is anticipated that drones could also be used to herd and direct cows.

On simply looking at the drone, you may consider this an unlikely, almost slapstick proposition. Hear it, however and you understand—its tone is somewhere between alarm bell and flaming wasps' nest. You get the feeling that if it wanted to, it could attack you, and you wouldn't win.

READ MORE: We Spoke to the Man Who Crashed a Drone Full of Asparagus in the Netherlands

As Powell and I take the drone out for a spin, the cows themselves seem to feel a mixture of ambivalence and fear towards the machine. The calves all back away from it, scuttling off into their barn. An older heffer eyes it with curiosity to begin with, then wanders off to find her spot back in the herd.

No one on the farm knows the cows better than Hannah Chard, farm manager at Smith's for 20 years. After a tour of the farm—including an introduction to a calf born at 7 AM that morning—we arrive in the milking parlour. The farm produces approximately 3400 litres of milk a day, all of which goes to Cadbury's for their Dairy Milk chocolate bars.

"I'm up at four most days, and often still out at ten," says Chard, patting cows' heads and hooking udders to the milking machinery. "Farming is in [my] bones."

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Be that as it may, it's clear that modern technology like drones can have a huge impact on the working day of farmers like Chard. The ability to remotely monitor herds and preempt soil issues frees up time to focus on the animals themselves.

"I could be doing welfare things, trimming feet, looking after calves," says Chard. "A happier cow will produce better milk."

With the number of dairy farmers in England and Wales halving over the last decade, it could be time to embrace new technologies, however uncomfortable they make us feel.

All photos by Michael Griffiths.